Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 285 – Grace Wishaar and D. Frank Dodge in New York

Part 285: Grace Wishaar and D. Frank Dodge in New York

Grace Wishaar described her entry into the New York scenic art world in 1901 when she was interviewed by the Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo News in the article “She is a Scenic Artist” (April 4, 1901, page 3). Wishaar was quoted saying, “I am convinced that I am a curiosity…People catch sight of my skirts both here [New York Theater] and at the Herald Square, where I sometimes work, and they stop rehearsal and bet on what I am and call up to me to find out.” Of her career in scenic art, Wishaar explained to another reporter, “The work is intensely interesting and I sometimes consider it as instructive as what are sometimes erroneously called the ‘higher forms of art.’” She was also a portrait painter.

Grace N. Wishaar in 1901. Here is a link to her image: http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sayre/id/11725/rec/1 University of Washington Libraries. Photographer was Brass, 1901 in the J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs (JWS22863).

When Wishaar first arrived in New York, she visited many of the studios to seek out possible employment. She explained that the scenic artists at the Metropolitan Opera House and elsewhere laughed at her for even thinking of entering into the profession. She then systematically went from one scene painter to another, asking to do only one piece. The standard response was “A girl in the flies? Absurd! Why she’d have to wear bloomers!” To each, Wishaar insisted, “a scenic painter was made, not born.”

Within four months time Wishaar was a member of Frank D. Dodge’s staff and working with five men to produce all of the scenery for “The Casino Girl” and “The Prima Donna.” Dodge was the official scenic artist for both the Herald Square Theatre and the New York Theatre. She described that every morning at 5 o’clock she appeared with the other scenic artists where she worked all day on the bridge or on her high solitary platform.

Sheridan Jenkins and Grace Wishaar in May 1902, Seattle. Jenkins was the artist at the Third Street Theatre in Seattle. From the J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs (JWS24539): http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sayre/id/13233/rec/2 University of Washington Libraries.

In a 1905 article “A Lady Scene Painter,” Wishaar reported to have been engaged in painting scenery with Dodge or more than four years, explaining that not all of her work was confined to New York City. She would go “at Mr. Dodge’s request, to all parts of the country.” Wishaar also explained the current artistic process: “When we receive an order for an important production, a consultation is held with the author of the play, and if the scenes are laid in another State, either I or Mr. Dodge take a journey to the particular locality and make sketches. If the scene is laid abroad, we have to read up on it, and when the play is English we get many a useful hints from the beautiful production, “Country Life.”

This is exactly what Thomas G. Moses and many other scenic artists were still doing. Although the rise of the studio system confined many scenic artists to a single location where painted scenery was produced and shipped to the appropriate venue, there were still projects that made more sense to complete on site after a series of sketches were made. Moses had been very active in this aspect of his career. What I find fascinating is that as a female, she wasn’t being hidden inside a scenic studio where her work would be examined as part of a group project. She was being sent out on location as an artist representing the studio of Frank D. Dodge.

Illustration of Grace N. Wishaar in the 1906 publication of “Success Magazine.”

An article in “Success Magazine” from 1906 featured Wishaar in the segment “Life Sketches of Ambitious Young Men and Women” (page 32). The article started with “What Miss Grace N. Wishaar Has Accomplished in a Field in Which She Seemed Totally Unfitted.” It was followed with “pluck, enthusiasm, and conscientious work have enabled Miss Grace N. Wishaar to become the only woman scenic artist in the United States.” History was rewritten for Wishaar a bit in this article. In it, she politely writes to Frank D. Dodge in New York. After receiving no response, she appears at his studio to make a personal plea. The article continues,

“Mr. Dodge looked at her smilingly. He liked the enthusiasm she displayed, although he felt he had no use for women in his studio. The idea of women painting huge pieces of scenery on a bridge away up under the roof of the theatre struck him as being somewhat amusing.

‘I don’t see what I can do for you,’ he said. ‘Women are not adapted to this work. Besides, my men would certainly go on strike if I should put you among them on a bridge.’

‘I don’t believe they would at all,’ replied Miss Wishaar, ‘and so far as lack of adaptability for the work is concerned, I intend to show that I am adapted for it; I’ll disguise myself as a boy, – if I find that nobody will give me a chance as a woman.’

‘Well,’ he finally said, ‘come back to-morrow, and I’ll take the matter up again.’ The next morning, Miss Wishaar appeared with a satchel in hand holding her artist’s painting dress. She was ready to go to work. “This business-like method strengthened the good impression she had made on Mr. Dodge, and without further delay he put her to work in the model room, and a few days later gave her an opportunity to do real scenic painting on the bridge.” His artists protested, but were told they must give the young woman fair play. Within a week she had won their good will, chiefly because she asked no favors and had shown that as a craftsman she could “hold up her end” with any of them.”

Within a year and a half after her arrival in New York, Wishaar had become the director of scene painting in “an important theatre” that remained unnamed. She must have been quite something to rise that quickly as it took many men years to make the jump from staff painter to director.   A large order for painted scenery for a theatre in Seattle was received by Mr. Dodge. As this was Wishaar’s home city, the idea of returning as “a successful worker in her chosen field” appealed to her. Arrangement was made for Wishaar to go to the Pacific Coast where she began painting scenery in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco and Oakland.

To be continued…

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